One would probably have to concede that it’s summer when the London art world heads off to Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire. For "The Artists’ Playground," the fourth run for the outdoor art exhibition at the 15th-century estate, the work is dotted about the picture-book grounds and spills over into the tiny chapel.
The annual Cotswolds beano is quintessentially English regardless of that strange new globally modern tendency to usher in "design" to every conceivable corner. Sudeley’s new design element was selected by the effervescent art dealer Kenny Schachter. He wasn’t there, he’s always there, where was he? Part of the design injection was a slope-y thing -- a slide? -- by Zaha Hadid, who is omnipresent in the UK, as well as the rest of the world it seems.
The castle itself is the childhood home of the exhibition’s curator, Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, also director of Gagosian London, and now international director of the CCM Moscow art space (more on the strange opening night of that enormous bus garage follows below). Dent-Brocklehurst’s co-curator here was Elliot McDonald, the Bertie Wooster-esque head of Hiscox Arts. Together, they always bring in an international stable of good artists and good things, and they always throw an esthetically beautiful and generous party.
Piotr Uklanski constructed the outline of the hand of The Thing and placed it by a quiet lake in the middle of the sprawling grounds. Stranger still, the Phillips de Pury auction house had commissioned a kind of eco-project, asking a few artists to make art using all the cardboard and wood that gets left over from their shipping and packaging, etc. As a result, art birdhouses and other things were hidden in trees and in bushes. It all added to the fairytale feel.
Michael Craig-Martin made, from a kind of neon-tube material, the outline of a large, luminous pink fork and stuck it in the ground, prongs down. Against the topiary and the scudding Cotswolds clouds, it definitely shimmered and looked like a hallucination or a mirage -- that may be the same thing -- and was the most magnetic piece there. Craig-Martin is the nicest man in the English art world, consistently and unconditionally, and I can’t help but be sycophantic about him and his work.
On my way to Sudeley, a friend told me that he had once bought a Craig-Martin piece in a charity auction -- three paint trays each filled with different colored paint -- but that it had been stolen from the auction house later that day. After we arrived at the castle, while we were watching Carsten Holler’s flying machine from a bar in the grounds, Craig-Martin walked in. I told him about this theft. He told my friend that he would replace it immediately, free of charge. This kind of thing just keeps the world turning in the right kind of way.
I include a mention and a picture of the artist Polly Morgan at Sudeley in her sparkly Chanel hot pants, because I can’t help myself.
Back in London, a bit of a favorite was the Trolley Gallery’s group show, "The Body Beyond Death," with some outstanding ballpoint-pen drawings of sort-of-beautiful skulls by Boo Saville, who is sister to celebrated yBa painter Jenny Saville. Lots of integrity in the younger sibling’s work.
The ubercool magazine publishers and artist collective Le Gun made an installation called Died Happy that consisted of a clay figure lying in a hole in the floor, who had very obviously died happy, as a certain protrusion rising to floor-level proved. At the show’s opening, a boozed-up woman stood on it, twice, and eventually snapped it off, much to the chagrin of the garrulous Gigi Gianuzzi, gallery director.
"Later, we got a visit from Tower Hamlet’s Health and Safety office," he told me a week after. "Apparently someone had reported our exhibition as a danger to society." The sculpture endures but is surrounded by a fence and hazard tape. What would we do without Health and Safety middle-men? Our lives would be approaching a hellish void, surely.
To Moscow and the above-mentioned curious and swanky preview party at the new Centre for Contemporary Culture Moscow, run by Daria (Dasha) Zhukova, a young lady perhaps best known as Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich’s girlfriend. The Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage on Ulitsa Obraztsova was designed by Konstantin Melnikov in 1927, and now holds Russia’s newest and most ambitious contemporary art project. The official opening in September coincides with a much-awaited Ilya & Emilia Kabakov retrospective.
The preview dinner on June 12, 2008, was rich and heavy, and the wait for the entertainment -- Amy Winehouse, hired at a cost of £1 million, people say -- was long, but at least one could look at the installation by Mexican artist Rafael Lozano Hemmer while one twiddled one’s napkin. Brit artist Conrad Shawcross somehow persuaded the bouncers to let him backstage, where he spent an hour with Amy, persuading her to come on stage a little more rapidly. She eventually appeared, and spent two hours singing well and mumbling efficiently, a beer bottle never leaving her hand. Then she got on a jet back to London. Two days later she was in hospital, having collapsed.
That’s Moscow for you, some might say.
Those who stayed on could visit Berlin dealer Volker Diehl’s group show, "Glasnost / Perestroika: Soz Art from the ‘80s and ‘90s." Diehl is the first western dealer to open up shop in Moscow and this is his second show (Jenny Holzer was his first). Alexander Brodsky’s installation of teabags and Dmitrij Vrubel’s image of a kissing Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker stood out. This was all old stuff (hence the title) but still held some power.
Still in Moscow, later that week was Alexei Buldakov’s show at the Incubator Gallery in the Vinzavod complex, where a rash of modern art galleries have recently opened. Buldakov belonged to the Radek Community, a group of left-wing artists whose disbanding last year was widely regarded as a symbolic event, a sign of the triumph in Moscow of the market over social idealism. Two films were running concurrently at Incubator: Sexlissitzky (2007) and XXXMalevich (2008).
Both of Buldakov’s films are parodies of art-historical and art-market pieties, you might say, although they work equally as well as a critique of pornography. Accompanied by a soundtrack of grunting and panting fornicators are fragmentary images from Russian Suprematist paintings that here become limbs and bodily parts, the elemental components of a primal cartoon. Or something like that.
At Moscow’s Central House of Artists, the Austrian art-comic Erwin Wurm -- "the grandson of the Surrealists," runs one quote -- has taken over. (This is an odd bazaar-type Soviet-style building opposite Gorky Park, with dusty small shops selling oil paintings clustered around enormous central exhibition spaces.) Anyway, for the sculpture Telekinetically Bent VW Van, Wurm has "bent" in the middle an old VW camper van. Stuck to its back window is a printout of an email exchange between Wurm’s assistant and the assistant of Mahesh Abayahani, a "telekinesis" guru from India.
Clearly enjoying themselves, the Wurm camp requested that the guru come and bend the bus for them in Austria. The Abayahani camp, for its part, fell straight into the knowing Westerners’ trap, which is somehow depressing. "For a flight Mr. Mahesh Abayahani wants business class and his price is 2,000 dollar." The guru also requested that the artist and his friends refrain from eating for 24 hours prior to the bending of the bus. They also had to turn all the electricity off and concentrate hard.
We have no way of knowing if any of this happened, of course, but it was an effective way on Wurm’s part of deconstructing certain notions of enlightenment, or perhaps taking the piss out of reincarnation types.
Another Wurm work, Fat House, is a nearly life-sized fairytale house made of fiberglass with a roof that looks like cotton wool. It’s a sculpture you can wander into. Inside is a film of the house talking to you, its front door opening and closing like a human mouth. It said, "I believe I should be outside," a few times, as if it knew it was inside a gallery.
A few minutes later, I got a phone call that furnished me with the (some might say pointless) information that the artist Paul Fryer, who makes enormous machines that produce lightning and stars, etc., is moving into an almighty new studio in Woolwich, South London. This is partly in order to prepare for his mammoth show with Joe La Placa’s new arts funding vehicle, All Visual Arts, in October at the Holy Trinity Church, Euston. Also because Fryer likes a lot of space. So much so that he is allegedly constructing two Ikea flat-pack wooden houses inside the behemoth of a building, one for his assistant to live in, the other for himself.
Back to London, where Russia seeped in, with two openings of Russian art on one night. I’ve been keeping a beady if untrained eye on the Paradise Row gallery since its inception, and it keeps coming up with the goods. This time a group show of "new" Russian artists, "Laughterlife," is about the Russian sense of absurdity and black humor.
Victor Alimpiev, Georgy Ostretsov, Elikuka, Diana Machulina and Rostan Tavasiev are included. A "simultaneously nostalgic and ironic treatment of the everyday objects and domestic rituals of Soviet times" was provided by Fedor Pavlov-Andreevich, too, although his work could also be read as a man with a sieve on his face, lying on a table squeaking out the words "twiddle my knobs" at regular intervals.
The show was, as a whole, shining, with Machulina’s paintings standing out, even though they were in a different location, that being where dinner was served to a group that included dozing arts writer and man-about-town, the loveable Anthony Haden-Guest, and a chipper Norman Rosenthal, our recently departed secretary of the Royal Academy. It was at the Wallis Road gallery/studios in Hackney Wick, a warren of buildings soon to be bulldozed for the crappy and pointless Olympics in 2012.
Machulina’s epic paintings depict weddings, ceremonies or birthday parties, and are traditionally done, almost in the style of Socialist Realism, against plain ochre backgrounds. They seem full of joy, but also have dark notes a-lurking. At the dinner, I sat next to Ms. Machulina and was happy about that, not just because she wore a T-shirt adorned with a unicorn that had a cake splattered on to its horn. The artist explained that her paintings were about "the crashing of normal human hopes," which enamored me to her even more.
On the same night, the curating group RS&A (Julia Royce, Mark Saunders and Francesca Ampitheatrof, who made their mark several years ago with a suite of high-end chess sets by artists) opened a show of new work by AES+F. The Russian uber-collective, whose celebrated film Last Riot was a hit at the Russian pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale, have now made Europe-Europe, a neoclassical-style ash cabinet of glossy porcelain figures, each containing two characters who would never in real life find themselves entwined. Here they are all locked in various embraces. Best in show was an 18th-century Jewish boy cradling the head of a 20th-century girl skinhead while they both lay on a rose-covered river bank.
This kind of thing has been done before somewhere, I think, but it all looked particularly alive in AES+F’s hands. Other large white shiny sculptures were dotted about and later, a very delicious dinner including squid and asparagus courses was held at the Canteen at the Rochelle School in Shoreditch -- a favorite for "art dinners" now, it seems, being headed up as it is by Margot Henderson, of St John Bar and Restaurant fame. And yes, I did manage to get to two dinners in one night, and yes, I later felt like an overfed, over-privileged baby bird. A bit guilty even. And a bit fat.
Sacha Newley is the son of Joan Collins, and quite a good painter, putting something of the early essence of Francis Bacon onto his canvases, although he’s known primarily as a portrait painter (though he is obviously trying to change that). The Catto Gallery opened his show at the Dover Street Arts club and his mum turned up. So did a man called Christopher Biggins, who is famous over here for pantomime and TV, and for being friends with people who are more famous than he.
Biggins approached the septuagenarian Joan, who is apparently his best mate, and said, "Joanie, Joanie, I can't tell you the dream I had last night. You called me in the middle of the night in tears. You said, Chrissy, I need to tell you something. I'm beside myself. I said 'Get over here right away Joanie'. You came round and told me you were pregnant. I comforted you. We got through it." Having a girly and clichéd penchant for camp, this I loved.
I also liked the synopsis of Exte, a new Japanese horror movie that I read about in the Oldie (a monthly humor magazine), of all places. "What if hair extensions carried the grudge of the individual to which the hair originally belonged and took this anger out on the hair's new owner?" What, indeed.
I went to see Liliane Lijn’s "Stardust" at the Riflemaker gallery. A knowledgeable beauty called Bryony took me round and explained everything so that I felt as if I was on a tour of a museum. Liliane has been working with NASA for years and here uses a substance called Aerogel to create wild sculptures. Aerogel is a latticed substance used to collect dust from space. Lijn projects different colored lights and three films through the cones, discs and mini mountainous landscapes she has created out of this glowing ultra-delicate weird jelly. A soundtrack plays 44 songs about stardust. You positively swim around the room. It’s been extended until September, due to popularity, I imagine.
Quintessentially, the lifestyle and travel club, had its "Art Summer" party at Phillips de Pury auction house. Performance artists performed while posh people drank booze. Eloise Fornieles and brother Ed Fornieles are the two most significant artists in this "field," I’d say. Eloise is happy to put herself to sleep for three days and let people whisper anything they want to her through a hearing trumpet, as in Senescence, which she did a in shrunken down version at the Quintessentially party.
Brother Ed destroys things of "special significance" and invites people to wrestle him to the ground and take his clothes off. These performances often happen at the aforementioned Wallis Road gallery, where he lives, but last week he was invited by the Barbican to present a young woman dressed as a debutante, who also had to endure this clothing-removal activity. Actually, a mob of volunteers was supposed to undress her from her daywear and put her into nightwear, but she fought them off, rather fiercely. After, as he said, she represented a "killer waif fighting against the system and winning." Ah, I said. I see.
Gentleman curator David Thorpe and GSK Contemporary are planning the inaugural winter season this year at the Royal Academy, so they took us (journalists) out for lunch last month in Burlington Gardens, to tell us about it. The London art world’s favorite eastend restaurant Bistrotheque is opening a café called Flash as part of the proceedings, the whole RA building will be open until midnight and lots of exciting things will be happening. Forty temporary exhibitions, a hundred film screenings. All starting on Oct. 31, 2008, and continuing through the winter months.
Mat Collishaw’s show at the Haunch of Venison was bound to inspire a sharp intake of breath. Instead of using war imagery flashed on to walls, as he did for his recent Spring Studios show, he uses pictures of Victorian child prostitutes. So disturbing. The walls are painted with phosphorescent paint so the images stay on the walls, then slowly fade away. Upstairs, Collishaw has made an almighty zoetrope called Throbbing Gristle, constructed from hundreds of plaster and resin figures. When a strobe light comes on, and the contraption wheels round, a minotaur looks to be approaching a distressed maiden in a disturbing way, a baby swigs from a bottle of wine and other creatures commit what look like unspeakable acts to each other. Typically Collishaw-ian: rotten to the core.
In the Tracey Emin-curated summer exhibition at the Royal Academy down the road, she includes another of Collishaw’s zoetropes, this one of a zebra mounting a woman. Nice. Word got round about this in the press and a few sticklers for tradition grumbled, including Jeffrey Archer, the disgraced MP, "lover of the arts," ex-jailbird and author of big books about crime or business or destiny or something. Archer wrote on his blog that he didn’t find the zoetrope "a very good picture" and that he’d seen an old lady complaining about it to the Academy.
I sent this blog entry to Collishaw, in a meddling kind of way, to see if I could raise a response. He immediately wrote back to Mr. Archer with the words, "Sorry to disappoint, Jeff. Maybe try to get the fragrant wife in the next piece. I have a nice stick of charcoal and an Arab stallion lined up. Just say the word. The Artist."
As I say, rotten to the core.
LAURA K. JONES is a journalist based in London. She has written for the Guardian, the Observer, the Times, the Saatchi Magazine and artforum.com.